For the Love of Cod

Shreve, Crump & Low’s strangely iconic fish-shaped jug teetered on the brink of extinction last year, much to the alarm of its obsessive fans. But now that its salvation is ensured, this much is clear: Nothing can sink the beloved gurgling cod.

Susan McDonough is a cheery, dark-haired woman with a thick Boston accent. Beyond a wicked sense of humor, there’s nothing about her that suggests someone who breaks the rules. But when she feared her precious gurgling cod were in danger, she had to do something to protect them.

McDonough, a buyer at Shreve, Crump & Low, just might be the most ardent of the gurgling cod’s many oddly ardent fans. (“When I set up my first e-mail address years ago,” she says, “I wanted it to be ‘codqueen.’ But that was already taken.”) In her office, a small, white-walled, sparsely decorated space situated at the end of a maze of hallways on the second floor of Shreve’s Boylston Street store, she had built up a well-curated collection of the fish-shaped jugs: white and brown, yellow and green, cobalt blue and salmon pink; small, medium, large. A golden cod. A purple crystal cod. Rare, beautiful things, at least in her eyes. On tough days, McDonough would take comfort in the boggle-eyed menagerie, which was arrayed in a glass cabinet next to her desk.

Then, last September, with Shreve’s sales plummeting, its parent company filed for bankruptcy protection. One day McDonough watched auditors passing her office, on the prowl for assets that could be liquidated. Seeing the dollar signs in their eyes, she wasn’t going to take any chances. She promptly spirited away her own cod to an undisclosed location. “Somewhere in the city” is as specific as she’ll get.

Strangely—or perhaps not so much, depending on your viewpoint and shopping history—McDonough isn’t the only person around who harbors such affection for the gurgling cod. Over the past seven decades it’s become a ubiquitous Boston icon—the odds you don’t know anyone who owns a cod are about the same as your not knowing anyone who’s been to a Sox game. Shreve’s pitchers have made their way into thousands of households and become a source of local lore. Norwood real estate agent Debbie Holmwood, for example, has given dozens as gifts to friends as far away as France, Germany, and Japan. (“Because it’s such a Boston thing,” she says, “that makes it more fun.”) Gurgling cod are wedding favors, engagement gifts, and the official water jugs of the Boston Harbor Hotel’s café. Online, there’s a 53-second video of a man emonstrating the glug-glug effect you get when pouring water from one. After Rush Limbaugh received a gurgling cod from a fan in the early ’90s, he liked that sound so much that he demonstrated it again and again on his radio show, drawing a comparison between the noise and Mary Jo Kopechne’s drowning after Ted Kennedy’s accident at Chappaquiddick. Within three weeks, Shreve had sold hundreds.

A company known mainly for its diamond rings, anniversary bands, sterling silver flatware, and crystal vases, Shreve probably didn’t intend for a slightly vulgar ceramic fish to become its most recognizable product. It just sort of happened. “The joke around Shreve,” says former company president Kevin Jenness, “was that the gurgling cod was ugly and had bad manners, because it burped. But once you get one, you want to give one to someone else.” And although the pitcher has been among Shreve’s bestselling items since its introduction, some employees haven’t always shared the public’s enthusiasm. “There’s an opinion, every decade, that this is a terrible thing, and we should get rid of it,” Jenness says. “But a true Shreve admirer would never do that. It would be sacrilegious.”

For a time last year, despite McDon-ough’s best efforts, it looked as if the anticod faction was finally going to get its way. But the gurgling cod, like Shreve itself, has proved remarkably resilient, and this time would be no exception. “Many people have tried to kill the cod over the years,” Jenness says. “But they haven’t succeeded yet.”

Shreve, Crump & Low likes to boast that it’s the country’s oldest jeweler, and its history encompasses everyone from Paul Revere to Ted Williams. It’s become so much a Boston institution that to some loyal patrons, a silver-wrapped, blue-ribboned gift box holds even more appeal than Tiffany’s little aqua one.

There are no records of exactly when Shreve sold its first gurgling cod, or where that first batch was manufactured. What is known is that the original pitchers were made at the request of Benjamin Dale Shreve (whose son, Richard, would be the last family member to run the company), and that they were modeled after a traditional English “glug jug” but given a local hook with the anatomically correct fins, gills, and scales of one of New England’s most enduring symbols. The first batch, all brown, depicted a cod with rounded fins and a flared mouth, balancing on its tail—which curved around to meet the fish’s chin, forming the handle.

By the time British company Dartmouth Pottery took over production sometime in the early ’60s, the scales had been smoothed, the mouth narrowed, the fins and tail squared off, and the cod repositioned to balance on its stomach with the tail turned up to connect with the back of its head. The color options had also been expanded: A catalog from 1964 offers a large green cod for $5, plus 75 cents shipping. White cod were later added, bringing the product toward its present-day array, which includes green, blue, and white cod in large ($75), medium ($55), and miniature (a twofer at $45).

In the early ’90s, McDonough tried to have the cod made locally, at a factory north of Boston. But the manufacturer couldn’t get the finish down, possibly due to FDA regulations that limit the amount of lead in ceramic glaze. “I don’t know if that had something to do with it,” says McDonough, “but it just wasn’t coming out right.” The only order from that plant—400 large cream, 50 large green, and 50 small white—was never completed. McDonough was crestfallen. “I thought it would be terrific,” she says, “to have it made in Massachusetts.”

Dartmouth Pottery continued to make the cod, but when its studio was bulldozed to make way for condos a decade later, McDonough found herself on the hunt again. Another Shreve supplier suggested Wade Ceramics, known for making novelty figurines called whimsies. Wade operates out of Burslem, England—part of what might be termed the U.K.’s Pottery Belt, the birthplace of everything from Wedgwood dishes to Staffordshire figurines. Wade’s glaze managed to conform to FDA regulations while staying true to the look of the cod. “I figured that we could find someone to make them,” says McDonough. “I’m always optimistic.”

It was optimism of another stripe—specifically, about the adaptability of the Shreve customer base—that ultimately landed the gurgling cod, and the store, in peril. The trouble started back in August 2002 with the death of Shreve owner Barrie Birks, who had rescued the company from earlier financial difficulties when he took it over in 1992. When the board hired former Tiffany executive Merritt Mayher as CEO, she shifted Shreve’s focus away from diamond rings and other classic investment pieces to more-contemporary, everyday items. The store later moved, at a reported cost of $7 million, from its flagship spot by the Public Garden—where a flooding-prone basement and fussy electrical sockets had added to the usual business challenges—to the former FAO Schwarz building, which is said to command a rent of $130,000 a month.

In the old store, the locally themed pieces—bone china boxes bearing images of the Constitution, desk clocks made in Chelsea, the gurgling cod—enjoyed relatively prime placement. At the new location, which was much larger and more impersonal to begin with, such items were relegated to a back corner of the second floor. Not that that kept committed cod shoppers from tracking down what they were after. “It doesn’t matter if we have them in the back,” says McDonough. “People still find them.” Overall, though, the new Shreve layout, location, and inventory just didn’t click. Within two months of the store’s November 2005 opening, revenue had dropped by $1.5 million.

Last February a merchandising consultant told McDonough not to order any more cod, and by the fall the stocks had dwindled to dangerously low levels. McDonough, who has been fielding the Christmas cod rush at Shreve for nearly two decades, was left with the unenviable job of turning cod lovers away as the 2006 holiday season approached. “It was out of my control,” she says, “which was very disturbing.”

By late last November, Shreve had sold out of the large cod, and had the medium left only in white. Still, a stream of shoppers continued to make its way to the store’s upper level, where, sharing a glass shelf with the Chelsea-made desk clocks, sat what remained of the cod inventory. One afternoon a customer who’d been contemplating giving the mini pitchers as business gifts said he couldn’t decide, that he’d come back later. “There won’t be any left when he comes back,” remarked a nearby saleswoman. Less than 24 hours later, the last of the cod were indeed gone.

Belmont entrepreneur Cassie Firenze was among the devotees who tried to scoop up one more pitcher for posterity’s sake. She admits she wasn’t always a cod lover, though: As a child, she couldn’t see the charm of the crazy fish-shaped jug the family kept on the dinner table, or the way it gulped when drinks were poured from it (“I figured it was just another of my mom’s weird quirks”). But as she got older, she began to share her mother’s affection for it—and when her boyfriend, Angelo, started coming over for dinner, he became an even bigger fan. When the couple got engaged, Firenze’s mother gave Angelo a blue cod wrapped up in the distinctive Shreve box. He was surprised to learn the gurgling cod’s purveyor was so distinguished. “I think he thought it was an old leftover from the Christmas Tree Shops or something,” says Firenze. Later, for a wedding present, friends gave the couple another pitcher, this one green. “They were embarrassed when they found out we already had a blue one,” she says, “but we were able to convince them that you can never have too many.”

Susan McDonough would certainly agree with this sentiment. So would Jim O’Malley. A Rhode Island–based fisheries consultant, he started his cod collection a decade ago, after his sister-in-law gave him one as a gift. Today he has “only 10 or 12,” he says, though they include a hard-to-find black, an early brown, and several shades of green. (He’s still kicking himself for passing up a coral cod in an eBay auction a few months ago.) O’Malley displays the black and white together for contrast, but keeps the rest spread out around his home. “People might begin to question your sanity if you have eight of them lined up in the same place,” he says. “But they’re very nice pieces of art, as well as great curiosities and conversation pieces.”

O’Malley has made a name for himself as the gurgling cod’s unofficial historian (more than one person I contacted referred me to him), and has an attention to detail that borders on the compulsive. Recently he noticed his large cod varied slightly in size—some measured 10¾ inches while others were only 10¼ inches. Curious, he conferred with McDonough, who explained that Wade Ceramics had cast its mold from an existing pitcher, resulting in a 7 percent decrease in size.

O’Malley likes to present the cod to clients. “When you give one, it’s impossible to resist the urge of making the gurgling effect,” he says. “There’s no shortage of nice vases in the world, so it’s really all about the gurgling.” Inveterate cod-giver Debbie Holmwood stresses the importance of ensuring that recipients appreciate that signature feature. “It’s one of those gifts that you give and people just go, ‘Oh,’” she says. “And then they learn to love it. But you have to make sure they know how to use it. Otherwise it just looks like a big, goofy fish.”

Shreve’s flagship store is closed now as it undergoes renovations ordered by its new owner, Chestnut Hill jeweler David Walker, who paid $12 million to take over Shreve last October. When the space reopens—the goal is to have it ready by this spring—it’ll have a different look and a more sustainable floor plan, occupying just one story of retail space. “It will be a very warm, classic, traditional environment,” says Walker. “Shreve has a sense of tradition to uphold. They lost that with the old company, and I’m going to bring it back.” The new space will also have the gurgling cod in abundance, with a splashy salmon hue joining the lineup of more-traditional colors. “We’ve already ordered thousands, and they will be in a prominent location,” says Walker. “We’ll have our cod corner, or something.”

Before Walker swept in, the talk had been that Shreve might go out of business for good. There was a moment during that dark stretch when McDonough was forced to contemplate how she’d carry on if her employer closed its doors. But even then she never really lost her faith that the gurgling cod would somehow endure. “I thought that if Shreve, Crump & Low was no longer,” she recalls, “I might try to sell them from my house.”